In some ways, Washington’s Museum of the Bible is a dramatic scene change for Rena Opert. She’s spent much of her working life in decidedly Jewish spaces — most recently overseeing the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s travelling exhibits. Before that, she worked at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago.
So for her to go to work managing temporary exhibits at the museum founded and chaired by evangelical Steve Green, the former president of Hobby Lobby, might surprise some. She says it’s right up her alley.
“Even I was surprised the first time I came here. I think people have a lot of assumptions about what this place is and I think often they’ll come and realize that they’re wrong,” says Opert, who is Jewish. “For me, it’s the perfect intersection of all my different interests. Working in a museum, working with both Jewish and non-Jewish artifacts that can bring together a cross-cultural dialogue.”
Opert, 39, began working at the museum almost three months ago, and she said her first order of business has been simply get to know what’s in the building, which boasts more than 4,000 artifacts and 430,000 square feet of exhibit space. But once acclimated, she’ll be responsible for overseeing the museum’s temporary exhibits and plotting out, years in advance, what it will put on display. She’ll also assist in a comprehensive review of the museum’s permanent artifacts, researching where they come from and who might have a cultural claim to them. It’s a controversy that has already befallen the museum, which opened a year ago.
In May, the museum returned 3,800 Iraqi artifacts for which the U.S. Department of Justice said Hobby Lobby hadn’t done enough to verify proper cultural provenance. And last month, the museum took down five fragments of what it said were parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls after a team of German researchers determined they were forgeries.
Opert previously co-taught a class about cultural property issues at George Washington University, where she got her graduate degree in museum studies. So the Bible Museum position offered yet another way to work in her area
“It was an opportunity for me to work hands on with the problem that I teach about, and to help the museum not only work through it but also become a model for how to deal with these problems,” Opert says. “The museum has taken upon itself a very rigorous course of research where they’re researching every single item in our collection and trying to be as transparent as possible.”
Opert is also hoping to make the museum as inviting as possible to a wide array of visitors, not just Christians, through its exhibits. Despite its ownership, the museum has no religious agenda, she says. Instead, those working in its offices are serious academics.
With the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Opert is working on a joint exhibit about a “slave bible” published in the 1800s. It was used to teach West Indian slaves to read, but it left out Exodus and other passages about hope and freedom while emphasizing obedience.
“It tells a really difficult story,” Opert says. “But we want to tell those stories. The Bible can be used for good and it can be misused. There are big questions to ask oneself when dealing with it.”
And in March, the museum plans to open an exhibit of medieval European Haggadot which Opert says are not only remarkable artifacts in their own right, but give snapshots of the Jewish communities from which they came.
The museum, according to Opert, isn’t simply trying to check off boxes. “I’m not going, ‘OK, this is the Jewish exhibit,” she says. It already features permanent exhibits on the Hebrew Bible and other religiously Jewish artifacts. But certainly, it has some work to do if it’s to overcome a perception of evangelizing.
In a review of its opening, the Forward’s Gordon Haber wrote that its message to non-Christians was clear.
“Despite the sincere attempts at inclusion, the museum functions as a message for non-Christians, and it’s our best interests to be aware of it,” Haber wrote. “The Museum of the Bible is telling us unbaptized that, whether it’s American or Israel or ‘Nazareth,’ it’s their world, and we just live in it.”
Opert is undoubtedly aware of the perception, and says that as the museum staff grows, higher-ups are emphasizing diversity. And according to Opert, the work will ultimately speak for itself.
“The people I work with are serious academics,” she says. “The goal here of this museum is to create a place where everyone will come and learn something, ask questions and be provoked. It does not have a religious agenda. Regardless of whatever the founders may have started with, that is not what it’s translated into for the people who work here.” n